I'm feeling sappy and sentimental this Christmas, perhaps because things are in such turmoil for us right now. And because life comes with no guarantees, it feels incredibly precious. I'm hoping that when the fog clears and Beaux has his new liver, we're all left with this feeling of fragility and extreme value. It's wearying and marvelous at the same time. In the meantime, thanks for caring, for being friends and guides and generally good guys. May you be blessed this holiday and well beyond.
By the oddest of circumstances, Jeni saw the same Santa Claus until she was 5, so it was pretty easy to convince her that he was real. Santa's name was actually Jerry and we ran into him once at Walmart then, happy day, he turned out to be a friend of our neighbor's and he did the Santa honors at that neighbor's Christmas party. He was such a good jolly old elf, in fact, that we saw him the next year at the governor's Christmas party and at the mall. The pattern continued for a couple more years. We've taken Santa pretty seriously at Chez Collins and Kyle. For several years, Beaux also had one of his coworkers stop by as Santa. Roger'd fling open the door and kind of explode into the house, with a ho ho ho and a gift we'd given him to give the girls. But the funnest Santa Christmas was the year that one of my coworkers told me he'd just done a story on the Gateway Santa, who said to tell me hi. It was Ed, my dad's old driver. And though I'd only bumped into him once since Daddy died in 1994, I knew Ed would be just the thing to bolster Aly's faith, which was sagging just a tad. I didn't call ahead. We just showed up. I had told the kids we were going to see a special Santa, one who knew Grandpa (who died before they were born). They were perhaps a little skeptical, but curious. Ed rocked. As we walked in, he sprang up and called my name. He was happy, as a Santa should be when he recognizes one of the Good Little Girls. I made sure I called my girls by name as we drew near -- Jen, don't forget to tell Santa.... And he launched into great stories of their Grandpa Frank and Grandma Mary. I watched in joy as their faces filled with wonder. The best part was, the fictional Santa made real a grandpa and grandma who had, to that point, been like a mist to the girls. A couple of years ago, when Truth arrived, Jeni had two questions: How did that guy know grandma and grandpa, because he obviously did. And who the heck "is that guy who kept flinging himself through the front door every year?" Did we damage them by "lying?" Nope. We gave them joy. And something to laugh about their whole lives. Merry Christmas.
If you ever wonder what kind of weird world we live in, feel free to check in on my 10-year-old's prayers at night. They go something like this: God, please bless the little boy that got hit by the firework and it almost ripped off his leg. And watch over Eliza (who is dying of a genetic disease that has basically paralyzed her entirely at age 3). Keep my sister and me safe as we go to school and let the cars slow down as they come around that corner so no one runs over us. And help my daddy get a liver transplant so he won't die. And bless our soldiers while they're on war and don't let them get blown up. Bring them home safe. And God, help the children of the police officer who died in the car chase. And give Destiny Norton a giant hug. Thank you for our life and all our blessings. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Years ago, when I'd heard my 90-millionth Lois Lane joke from someone who thought he was the first and only one clever enough to crack one, I asked my dad what the hell he was thinking when he named me Lois. I was thinking you'd be an electrician, he told me mildly, the corner of his lips twitching with a suppressed smile. I wish. This has not been my favorite week as a journalist. In fact, it's a field that's getting darned near as depressing as being an American automaker. Today, one of my colleagues from the editorial department showed up to give me a heads up on a letter to the editor that's going to run about me tomorrow. The writers complain about our aging series -- of which I am actually quite proud because Elaine and I have worked like dogs on it. Bless their hearts, they're protective of their mom and disappointed that she was mentioned, rather than profiled in last week's story on nursing homes and assisted living facilities. I get that because I love my mom, God rest her soul, too. But I'm a little aggravated because all along I explained to her that we're talking to lots of people (about 200 last count) on the topic of aging and using bits and pieces. She said great. What bothers me -- and I'm trying to suck it up but not doing a very good job -- is that they didn't like the photo and said the caption was wrong. I'm not the photographer and I didn't write the caption. But I'm the person on whom the error is blamed, by name. My co-author and the photographer got a pass on this one, although I couldn't have "fouled it up" without them. Mostly, I feel bad because I really liked the woman these children clearly love, as well. Liked her so much, in fact, that I managed to squeak her in at every opportunity. She made brief appearances in three or four stories and is profiled online. Cumulatively, there's quite a bit about her. I'm sad that she was disappointed. And irritated that anyone can say anything they want in a published letter and we don't point out relevant things like the reporter didn't take the picture. This follows, mind you, on a typo in a story last week where I added an s to an email address, rendering it worthless. The point of publishing the address in the first place was to tell readers where to get a free radon test kit. I hate having to run corrections, but at least that one was my bad. My embarrassing, stupid bad. I'll own it. Mostly, I'm thinking I'm just depressed. The economy is making us all cry. My husband has a potentially deadly disease and I happen to adore him. Add in the wretched state of newspapers right now and I'm feeling a little bit lost. There's something disheartening about hearing someone who owns a string of newspapers -- and should know better than most how important they are -- say that he believes everything I have done proudly for 30 years can be outsourced quite nicely to India. It seems reporters don't need to show up to events and public hearings. All you need are press releases or someone holding up a cell phone to capture video. No context, no social conscience, no sources or institutional memory or sense of a community. And no one these days wants to hear both sides of a story. Most of us, it seems, only want to hear from people who think as we do. Did I mention that Al was trying to help me and dropped my blessing jar in the driveway, shattering it? Figures.
Years ago, in Idaho Falls, I owned a big beautiful birch tree, bequeathed to me by a very nice attorney who used to let me climb it whenever I wanted. He'd often sit on the ground below the tree and chat. He was a neighbor and a friend and he made me, as a 10-year-old, believe that I had thoughts that counted and were worth sharing. Today, an older man paying that much attention to a little girl would be discouraged. It was an innocent and nurturing relationship. He got me interested in debate, was probably why I went to nationals in extemporaneous speaking the only time I ever tried it (I was an impromptu speaker but that wasn't a category). When he died, he left stern written instructions that I would never need permission to climb the huge birch in his yard on 11th Street, not far from where I grew up. That was the start of my love affair with tree climbing, and when I came to Salt Lake to school, I regularly climbed the trees in Memory Grove, shinnying up them to sit quietly and read the texts I'd lugged in my knapsack, while life went on below me. Today, I had this urge to climb a tree again. The girls were struggling to get up a tree near the little Presbyterian Church in Malad, Idaho, where we'd driven because it was lovely outside and our souls these days are restless. After church, we dragged Beaux out, although he's feeling lousy more and more, and hit the road. He stayed in the car, but the lure of the tree was simply too strong for me. There must be earthbound monkeys somewhere, because we're definitely simian, but we are now awkward tree climbers. It took Jenifer and Alyson a half hour and the most amazing propping each other and pushing and poking to finally get there. I made only one attempt and it was a really good one. I almost made it. Until I wedged my big toe, which has a massive and miserable bunion, into a crease in the tree and was suddenly paralyzed, terrified I'd twist it and break off my big toe. I mean, it was seriously wedged. So with great care and more than a little assistance, I returned to planet earth sure of one great truth. What once went up today came down. And will stay there. We are, seriously, the crappiest tree climbers ever, although we are without question goofy little monkeys.
My mom was totally blind, so it seems kind of weird that she loved Halloween passionately. She always wanted to be the one to answer the door and hand out treats, asking kids as they placed their bags under her hand, "what are you?" She had a little counter and kept careful track of each bag she filled, then she'd call Kath or me and tell us with glee what a fine and busy Halloween she'd had. Some years, she's have more than 100 and I'd have only five or six at my apartment. She's gone now and I've become her. I LOVE opening the door to the little ghouls and dollies. And I count. Then I pester my siblings with the magic number, like it's a personal accomplishment. Dave, I tell my brother, it's not quite 7 o'clock and I've had 54. Woops, gotta go. Tell Kath. I'm in the right place for this pursuit. Our house is sort of by itself between neighborhood clusters. You'd think we wouldn't get much monster action, but it's the opposite. We're the house that all clusters cross. Tonight, we scored big, more than 300 little beasties weaving their way past the decorations Beaux put up. It's a blatantly Halloween-friendly house and the kids and their parents flock to get our candy. Mom would have loved it. And perhaps that's why I love it so much. More than any other day, this is the one where I honor my mom, Mary Collins.
I used to think there was no upside to needing a liver. I'd be lying if I said the prospect of Beaux having a transplant doesn't scare me to death, although I can't wait for it to happen so that he'll feel better. The pessimist part of me worries about the details and how we'll pay for the medications and all that good stuff. I'm absolutely convinced God will provide, but I wish He'd show me His plans. The drugs are going to be astronomical, and Beaux's now getting sick enough that I don't suppose it will be too long before he can't work until he's on the other side of this organ transaction. And I make a pretty decent salary, but not enough to pay everything on my own. It's not like he's worked so hard all these years to buy pretty clothes for all of us. Add to that the fact that I am A) a world-class worrier and B) a journalist -- and reading an actual newspaper doesn't seem to be America's favorite hobby right now -- and you kind of get the idea that my freak-out may not be so far-fetched. What I know, absolutely, is that I will work three jobs if that's what it takes to give Beaux a new shot. I've learned a lot more about him during the seven months since we were told he's dying than I did in the last 12 years of marriage. Who knew that he was so damned funny? Or that he'd adopt some off-the-wall hobbies for entertainment and amuse the heck out of the entire household. Anyway, the good news just keeps on coming. His psoriasis, which has long bothered him a lot, has gotten to the point where it may be dangerous. It sometimes even bleeds and he's already prone to infections because of the liver disease. Today, we went to see the dermatologist -- who's actually one of the world leaders in terms of psoriasis. Beaux's definitely been planted in the right garden, here in Salt Lake. And here's where we make lemonade. We'd like to get the psoriasis cleared before a transplant so that he's more comfortable and we reduce the risk that an infection will knock him off the list temporarily. So we talked today about all these options, most very expensive and all uncomfortable. Although it wouldn't be the first time I gave Beaux weekly shots. We've done that once before. The the doc dropped the bomb and I can't seem to stop smiling. A transplant, it turns out, is a real good cure for psoriasis. The most popular anti-rejection drug is almost magical in its ability to kick the pegs out from under the hyperactive skin disease. Cool. Anybody want a lemonade?
When you're part of a big, boisterous family, it's pretty easy to overlook the petty jealousies that may smoulder beneath the surface. And it's tempting to think that we're all pretty much the same, when clearly we aren't. Holly and Lucy had a minor spat tonight. Holly was cuddled on my lap, munching a carrot, when Lucy tried to nudge him out of the way. When it didn't work, Lucy got huffy and grabbed Holly's carrot, then sauntered off with it. Holly looked like he didn't know whether to cry or ignore it. I'm trying, though, to teach the kids to play nice. So I'm afraid I spoke a little sharply to Lucy. I happen to know she doesn't even like vegetables. Looking guilty, she forced herself to eat it. Then sulked for another 20 minutes. I hate it when the labrador and the guinea pig can't get along.
I've been working on a writing project with a dear friend for a while and my professional world has been peopled with folks in their 90s and even 100s. I'm quite charmed by all of them, but walk away from each encounter feeling like my mom was ripped off. Born blind, a remarkable woman in all ways, and forced to wind down without her sense of self. I can only hope she was in a happier place than my siblings and I were as we watched her go through Alzheimer's. Looking back, nearly four years after her death at age 80, I have been thinking not of the tragedy of the disease, but of some of the joyous moments that come if you just go with it and stop fighting it. One day, as we sat in the small anteroom in the Alzheimer's unit in Ogden, the sound of restless spirits wailing and grunting and shouting in various rooms around us, she told me it was the dullest convention she'd ever attended, "but I'm no quitter. Maybe it will get better." She didn't have anything in common with the other conventioneers and the speakers were just unbelievably uninspiring, she said. The day they finally got a piano, she tinkered and even played. I'd always suspected that playing piano, which she started doing as a prodigy of age 5, would be the last thing to go. She didn't disappoint. But after a few pieces, she told me she was sorry sometimes she'd made it so big in music. "These tours are grueling." No doubt. The Keeper Moment of my life came the day this lovely, beloved woman I'd come to view as Fake Mom, since she no longer even knew who I was, said unexpectedly, "You know who you'd like? My baby, Loie. She's a keeper." You can't buy that kind of testimonial. And the day she told me that she'd been talking to her brother, Don, who died in 1976, I believed her without question. And was glad. I didn't even want to know what they talked about. I was just glad he'd finally gotten in touch.
Two days ago, I was putting some towels away and passed my daughter Alyson's closed bedroom. As I was heading back down the stair, she called me into her room. "Mama, come," she said. "How'd you know it was me?" "I waited for your happy grunt." Huh? I have a happy grunt? She said that when I finish a task successfully -- in this case, putting away towels -- I make this distinctive little grunt. She listens for it if she wants something, because my happy grunt means I'm not busy for a minute and I'm in an okay mood. Huh? The next day, I was telling the story to Beaux. Did you know I have a happy grunt? Jeni, in the back seat, started smiling. "Oh yeah. The happy grunt. I listen for it." So I started listening, too, and guess what? I have a happy grunt. It's a tiny, understated little thing that sounds like I'm clicking my tongue and clearing my throat at the same time. It appears, though, that it's not a solo act. This morning Jen told me she likes my happy grunt, but not my growly grunt. Huh? I've got a growly grunt? That, she and Aly agreed, is the noise I make when I'm vexed. It's part growl, part throat clear, and it's the preamble to "knock it off, you two." I found it today when I paid attention, as well. The girls were delighted they knew something about me that I didn't know, so on our way to the grocery tonight, they introduced me to two more grunts. I have a sad, I'm-disappointed-in-you grunt and a long-suffering (but still short) frustrated grunt. Huh? Those, too? Yikes. So I started listening and, blast it, I found them. They're real. I'm a veritable mood ring of sound. Wonder what other secrets I'm keeping from myself.
Today, gluttony won and sweet Blossom passed away. She was the dwarf hamster who could stuff food in the pouches of her mouth all the way back to her hip bone. Seriously. You'd touch her cheek and feel hard kibble just below the surface. She liked to roam, but she never sneaked out of her cage empty-handed and we'd find her by looking for the food she piled in for a single trip. There was, of course, a veritable tsunami of grief, but at least it kept the girls from noticing that her mouth was packed with food. Ugh. A corner of our yard has now become a pet cemetery that would be the envy of a small community. Three weeks ago, the neighbor girl's dwarf, Princess, died. In true friend fashion, we offered to let her bury it in our yard -- they live in a condo -- and Beaux even did the digging. Within an hour, other neighbor girls were knocking on the door and bringing flowers. The kids have some weird communication network that makes a calling tree look prehistoric. It was not until I went out to dig a hole for Blossom that I realized how amazing the graveyard really has become. Princess' grave was encircled with garden edging and adorned with a veritable garden of flowers, some silk, some felt, some plastic, some real. There are marbles and gewgaws and a little brocade purse. After we passed Blossom's little corpse around -- cradled in the arms of a small teddy bear, no less -- and said a few words (I dug deep and came up with something more profound than "Bye, Blossom" but it wasn't easy. I didn't know her well), then sprinkled the dirt over the popcorn box she's riding into eternity, I went back inside so they could grieve as a family of hamster lovers. (I'm more a cat person, actually.) Three little girls wailing so loud I thought someone might call the police. When I went out to drag them in eventually, the plot had thickened -- literally. In addition to the flowers and gew gaws, it's now covered with colorful rocks and a fuzzy teddy bear. By the end of the week, I expect it to look like the makeshift memorial in front of The Dakota after John Lennon was shot. No one loves as passionately as a preteen who's lost a palm-sized pet.
I'm sitting at my desk, tired and hungry and it occurs to me. Ah, crud. I did another drive by. A drive by is how I measure my sanity in an increasingly insane world. And it goes like this. I pull up to Burger King or someone where and place my order, humming happily because I'm gonna be fed soon (childish tune in background). Pull to window, pay. Get change. Drive back to office. Realize -- sometimes an hour or so later, when my stomach's growling again -- that I didn't wait for my order. When clerks give me change, that signals the end of the transaction to me. If they do that before they give me my food, I drive away.
My friend Elaine and her family love these stories. They're especially fond of the day I went to Mickey D's and pushed the intercom button, then zoned out. Hi, can I help you, the disembodied voice asked. Must have reminded me of a phone, because I introduced myself. "HI, I'l Lois Collins from the Deseret News." A few minutes later, when he called me by name, I wondered briefly how he knew. Duh again. I gotta get more sleep.
Sunday we went to the flag display in Sandy, in remembrance of the horror of Sept. 11. I'm stunned by the moments that bring pure joy -- and the unlikely venues where you can feel it. We wandered through the flags, a bittersweet display, then meandered further south to the unexpected little nature area behind the ugly Target store back. A little treasure in the midst of a commercial development. To the west, there was a rustic barn and Beaux, who's avid about photography, wanted to snap off some photos. The girls stood by the fence and admired this knobby-kneed horse in the distance. The horse, in turn, acknowledged them with a little nod, but it kept right on eating. Until she saw Beaux. The horse made a funky dash across the field and it was clear the dear thing is no longer young. But she (I'm assuming here -- not having been in the mood to really look) set her sights on Beaux and kept on coming, never taking her eyes off him. He watched her, snapping photos as she came. And when she arrived, all huffing and sweet, she put her nose right against his and just stared into his eyes. I've never seen anything like it. She stared and stared and stared and it was enchanting, but as my friend Elaine said later, "Whisper louder, horse!" I'm not sure what she was trying to tell him. I like to think she was offering him peace. He's restless and vaguely worried, because eventually he'll fall apart without a new liver and that's decidedly disconcerting. Whatever the gray gal was saying, they just loved each other for a bit. And I learned how it is that a horse hugs, since it doesn't have the kind of arms that enfold you. A horse hugs by putting her head over your shoulder, drawing you as close and warm as she can and squeezing gently. I've never had one. But after witnessing this one, I can tell you I wanted a horse hug. Enchanting really is the only word.
So, Beaux's finally on the list for a liver transplant and I made the mistake of looking at the UNOS site to see what that actually means. Some of those folks have been on the transplant list for three to five years. Not good. Dr. Hutson said the average time that someone lives after a major bleed out like Beaux had is about 18 months unless they have a liver transplant. We've got six months under our belts since this began. But as fast as I want things to move, I want them to slow down. If he can't work and we're down to my income, we're toast. Seriously. We'll lose the house. I'm trying to get creative and figure out how to make this work, get bills all paids, etc., but I'm not seeing things very clearly yes. So I pray a lot. At the end of the day, we're doing it all by guess and by God. Thank God the latter is a real option.